Contrary to popular belief, decomposing dinosaurs are not what formed the world’s oil and gas deposits.
Crude oil and natural gas were being made into fossil fuels eons before the dinosaurs ruled the earth and are the remains of plants and animals that fell to ocean floors and were then covered up under layers of sediment as they decomposed. Over time, those deposits were subjected to heat and pressure that changed them into hydrocarbons and other organic compounds.
While that process took millions of years, Canfor research engineer Faye Cuadra and her team at Intercontinental Pulp in Prince George are figuring out ways drastically shrink the time required, using forestry and pulp mill waste as the source material. The technology is already proven to work and Cuadra’s work in the lab is refining the process that will take wet organic material produced as byproducts of the pulp mill and convert that fuel for transportation.
“What we’re trying to do is significantly lower that timeframe where you can actually produce the oil and they’re saying that, commercially, it’ll be minutes instead of a million of years,” said Cuadra.
“It’s a clean source of energy and it’s going to contribute to the oil and gas industry. Most of the technology we’re looking at is still in research and development pilot plant stage, so we’re trying to raise the bar a bit higher, from a pilot plant to a demonstration plant or a commercial plant. Once it’s built and once it’s operational it’s definitely going to change where we get our oil from.”
The Arbios Biotech project is a joint venture between Canfor and Licella Fibre Fuels, an Australian technology company that has devised a method and the equipment to turn renewable pulp mill waste into transportation fuel. The partnership formed in May 2016 and the following year the federal government provided Canfor a $13 million cleantech grant.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said James Spankie, Canfor’s director of biofuel development Spankie. “It has a lot of potential for reducing waste generation in a lot of different industries and it’s turning into a made-in-Canada solution and our proposal is to go forward with something right now in Prince George. Anything made of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen could potentially be a feed stock.”
Canfor has been encouraged by feasibility studies and the next phase will be to approve further capital spending on the project to find alternative uses for forest and pulp products.
“We know that it’s something we’re going to have to do as a business, just to exist over the next number of decades,” said Spankie. “There’s a lot of good tie-ins to our existing business in that we’re here in Prince George, and we have very well-established supply chains with respect to forest materials. We have a refinery across the way (the former Husky plant now owned by Tidewater Midstream Ltd.) and there’s strong regulatory support for this type of work and the political support is very much there.”
The clean energy aspect is creating corporate momentum and political favour for the Arbios Biotech project.
“The bottom line is we saw a technology where we could transform the carbon cycle, from pulling carbon out of the ground and into the air, where we’ve actually got a living system that pulls the carbon out of the air back into trees, basically limiting the circle to above ground,” said Spankie. “So instead of adding to the issue with carbon dioxide in the air we’re participating in it so we’re pulling it out, because trees are perfect for that and they actually convert the carbon dioxide into chemical energy.”
Cuadra is experimenting in Canfor’s lab off Pulpmill Road to refine the process which involves using Licella’s catalytic hydrothermal reactor, which uses heat and pressure to convert the slurry of wood and water already being produced in the kraft pulping process and make it into biocrude oil to be refined into biofuel and biochemicals. As an engineer-in-training at Intercon, her work on the project led to Cuadra’s selection a few weeks ago for the Forest Products Association of Canada’s Rising Star award.
“It’s been a very great honour receiving the award, I’m really happy and a bit surprised I actually got it,” said the 27-year-old. “When I heard about the nomination in February that was more than enough for me. The nomination just gave me some validation that I’m doing good at what I’m doing and it made me feel appreciated. I’m very lucky to get this opportunity, it’s a very unique and groundbreaking project that I can contribute to.”
Cuadra, is a native of the Philippines and moved to Kelowna with her family in 2011, graduated from UBC in 2107 with a degree in chemical engineering. During that time she worked as a co-op student on research to find alternate materials to work as batteries for electrical storage in power systems. Canfor hired her early in 2018 as an intern to develop the lab work and testing and the preliminary engineering of the project, which is still in the development stage.
“She has basically become the preeminent expert on biocrude distillation in the world,” said Spankie. “She’s very smart and she has a great work ethic and is very keen and engaged with the project and she’s accepted all the missions we’ve thrown at her with great enthusiasm. So we nominated her for the award, which was accepted and that’s awesome.
“She represents a lot of what’s really good about young people coming out of school these days that should be held up as an example. She has a lot of the ‘old school’ type of work ethics with very ‘new school’ in-depth understanding of new technology and how to apply it in the workplace and she’s been doing a bang-up job for us.”